Simon Pugh-Jones, Chair of the Bristol Diocesan Advisory Committee, provided these ten easy steps to handling projects involving historic churches.
Changing Churches Made Easy
1. Talk to your local DAC: If your church project falls under the jurisdiction of the diocese, and possibly even if it doesn’t, get hold of your local DAC as soon as you think you want to do something. DAC’s are not like local authorities. The experts on the committee are all volunteers and that means they are doing it because they really care about churches and church projects. Years ago it used to be that local authority Conservation Officers and people like historic England were just a phone call away, ready to give you helpful advice, especially at the very beginning of your project. But budget cut backs mean that such advice is now rationed, and sooner rather than later requires a fee to be paid. DAC’s are different and pleasingly old fashioned. We aren’t paid and never have been. We have no budget to cut. We are fuelled by nothing more than enthusiasm for projects just like yours. We can help you steer in the right direction from the beginning, we can help smooth the decision making process, and, I’d like to think, help you achieve something that is even better then you ever dared imagine! And where we can’t help you in person we can help with the huge range of information and guidance available on the DAC webpages or nationally via the Churchcare web based resource.
2. Talk to other people before you do anything else: find out about project like yours that have already been done. Go and see them. Ask them what aspects of their project worked well. Ask them what didn’t work well. Ask them how they got the money together. Ask them how they got their permissions ……. The worse you will come away with is some watch-points on what to do or not to do in your project. Most likely you will come away enthused and energised, you will have stolen some great ideas for your own project, you will have made some really good contacts, and you might have some great leads on funding.
3. Understand the nature of change: Remember that change can be painful for some but change is usually good. When we describe the history of a building we are describing the changes that happened to it. History is change!
4. Understand the decision making process: Whether your project is secular of ecclesiastical the decision making process that governs proposed change is (or should be) essentially the same – it should start with a good understanding of the building – its history and what it is that makes is so special or interesting. It should look at the proposals and understand what impact they have on that interest and special qualities. And if the proposed changes have an impact and that impact amounts to harm affecting historic interest, it should assess whether the benefits of the proposals outweigh that harm. Take note that decision makers, be they local planning committees or Diocesan Chancellors, need more persuading if the change you are proposing is significant. Especially if the proposed change is controversial and has attracted objectors! In those cases it is safer for a decision maker to refuse the permissions you need, and refusals are often justified by referring to change as harmful impact. By understanding the decision making process you can hugely influence the decision maker’s thinking. You can show them that you are indeed proposing brave and exciting changes, that you have taken trouble to minimise the effect on historic interest, and how your project will result in good things – benefits to the community, economic benefits, social benefits, the benefit of securing the future use of an historic building, and so on. And don’t forget that if your project helps a church develop its role and mission as a church, that the diocese will see that as a very positive thing.
5. Stay positive, ask questions, challenge (positively) things that you don’t understand or that seem somehow wrong: There are good Local authority conservation officer’s and less good – conservative in their decision making or liberal, just as there are different varieties of DAC. If you ask a question and hear nothing back, politely follow it up. Invite people to come and see what you’re about, infect them with your enthusiasm and make them want to help you. Do a good job of telling people about your project. Write cool, engaging proposal documents – mock up a brilliant website – make a 5 minute YouTube clip of what you want people to know.
6. Understand the typology of your building: Don’t forget that the general rule is that the best use for a building is usually the use it was built for. But remember rules are for breaking. And remember that churches weren’t usually first built in the Victorian model of uncomfortable pews and hell and brimstone preaching. Churches were the social focus for communities. Often places for dancing, worship for music – it’s astonishing to imagine growing up in mediaeval rural parish, where it’s likely the only place you would ever hear music of any kind was at the church. It is also incredibly exciting for us to collectively reimagine churches that were once the default focus of our communities, so that even in our modern high appeal culture they are desirable and purposeful.
7. Understand the origins or your building: So find out the full history of your church – are those awkward pews actually a very late addition? When was it built – why was it built. Why is it that shape? It can be very helpful to look at us today as a point on a timeline. Understanding the ups and downs of a timeline and the architectural origins of your building can give very clear and tangible pointers to the future, and your project’s part in it.
8. Get some expert help: When you understand your baseline, and you are thinking about the possibilities, get some expert help. Architect’s and project managers are potentially expensive but give a good designer a good brief and the ideas will flow quickly and may well inspire your project. The DAC can help you find an Architect, but please make your own decisions about who you want to help you. If you meet 3 professionals but don’t really like any of them, meet 3 more and keep going until you find the right one for you. If you get the wrong person you will be paying for it for years but worse still you might be living with what they built you for generations.
9. Talk to people some more: With your inspired sketches and your enthusiasm, talk to people. Think about funding. There are some really amazing stories of projects that started from nothing and the money just came. That might be a little divine intervention, but it’s also true that there’s money out there for really good ideas that will really make a difference. You’ve just got to find it.
Talking to people will help test your ideas. For example, if you have plans for a café, talk to someone who’s got one – you’ll soon learn the harsh realities of business planning from someone who’s living depends on it, and who’s made the expensive mistakes you don’t want to. Talking to people will help you understand the different perspectives on your project. If you have objectors, talk to them (if you can – some won’t want to talk as if the pleasure they get from objecting might be at risk if you found solutions to their concerns). There is usually a lot of common ground in these situations.
Talking to people can engender a galvanising effect as everyone faces the future with a shared sense of nervousness and excitement. Talking to people will help you find your future staff, volunteers, customers and the people who will reignite your enthusiasm when you thought you were weakening.
10. Don’t forget the God stuff: Consider the scale of undertaking it must have been to have originally built many of our beautiful churches. Regardless of era, of location or demographic, they were all built to the Glory of God. In their time they will have done great things for society, transforming lives, bringing meaning, comfort – christening, marrying and burying our predecessors. I love the idea in ecclesiastical architecture of ‘thin places’ – so whilst I am a Christian and I believe in an omnipresent Lord, I feel greatly inspired and secure in knowing that our churches help me feel a little closer to the Kingdom. If you are faithful, then I think it follows that you should reaffirm the spirituality of our churches. If you are not then I think you can take a cultural view of that in so far as faith and the Christian message have been such a part of the history of any church building. And if you really aren’t swayed by that then I think you can still take a robust strategic view in so far as the majority of the population are swayed by it. Traditional church attendance is still declining – but truly modern churches are in growth. Moreover, we see strong demand for things like church preschool provision when that is not just a playgroup at a church, but actively a church playgroup.
So in summary, change can be very tough, but it can be very exciting and the pathway to a brilliant new future. Change can be tough, but it gets easier if you talk to people a lot, and if you build a really strong understanding of why that change is necessary and make sure it really does fit within the historic importance of the building you’re changing.
It can be tough, but that doesn’t mean you need to be shy about the positives of your project. Maybe there is some genuine harm, but your project is likely to breathe new life into the building and into the community it sits within. Your project will be a reason to put the heating on, to decorate, to welcome people to actively enjoy what could so easily become a closed up cold and forgotten gem of a building. It might even be a place where people come to know God.
Simon Pugh-Jones R.I.B.A. February 2017.